Vocals are the centerpiece of most songs, and getting them to sound just right is an important part of the production process. There are many techniques that can be used to help bring out the best in a vocal performance, and in this post, I will talk about some of the more effective ones I've learned over the years.
One of the most important tools in a producer's arsenal is compression. Vocal recordings often have a wide dynamic range, with some parts being much louder than others. A heavy dose of compression, specifically with a fast attack and release, and a high ration (honestly it's closer to a Limiter than a Compressor) can level out the phrases, while simultaneously bringing out the textures and interesting sounds in a person's voice. This is why the 1176 FET compressor is so popular for vocals, it has insanely fast compression times and a strong compression ratio. It also adds pleasant harmonics to a signal when overdriven.
Saturation is Everything
Speaking of overdriving, another great technique for adding fullness and colour to a vocal is to saturate it. Listen closely to any isolated vocal tracks on Youtube and you'll quickly see that a vast majority of them are actually quite heavily distorted. This is often due to the analog equipment being overdriven and can be emulated using any run-of-the-mill saturation plugin (just make sure to enable Oversampling!). Distorting vocals can mask some of the "ringy" frequencies and help the vocal sit in the mix, instead of on top of it.
Make it Thick
Layering is a popular technique used to thicken the vocal performance. By recording multiple takes of the same part and layering them on top of each other, producers can create a fuller sound. This is particularly effective for choruses or other parts of a song that need to stand out. Just be sure to time-align the doubles, the goal is to NOT sound like it's multi-tracked. Another quick tip is to use EQ to filter out the low and high-ends of the doubles, or heavily de-ess them, this masks some of the sibilance and helps it sound more like a single, thick vocal track.
Add Some "Air"
Adding "air" to vocals is a popular technique in pop music, and it's achieved by boosting the high end frequencies. However, this can also lead to sibilance issues, where the "S" sounds become overly pronounced. To combat this, I recommend first heavily boosting the high-end with a shelf-EQ, then running that boosted, harsh signal into a de-esser to tame the unpleasant side-effect of high-boosts. This creates the sort of "poppy air" without making the track too sibilant.
Space and Dimension
Reverb and delay are popular effects used to add depth and dimension to a vocal performance. A problem I see a lot with these sorts of effects is the "washiness" that comes from blending the dry and wet signals incorrectly. This sound is often quite amateurish and you'll hear it a lot in Youtube covers, the trick I use to add delay/reverb while still maintaining clarity in the main track, is to Sidechain the affected signal to the original. This means that the delay/reverb is less apparent while the dry signal is playing, but can still fill in the gaps afterwards. Another way to help blend in the affected signal, is to run the Delay or Reverb straight into a Chorus effect, smearing some of the frequencies and widening it to prevent it clashing with the center vocal.
Automation is an often overlooked aspect of production, but it makes all the difference - especially on vocals. Automation gives the producer more control over individual words and phrases, and can be used to re-introduce some dynamics after compression, for example by boosting the volume during the Chorus or Breakdowns. It's tedious work, but it really does make a difference.
I hope there's at least one paragraph in here you can take home and use in your vocal productions. Working on vocals can be a tedious, but rewarding process and is often one of the key points that separates an amaetur mix from a professional one.